Riding the Waves of Feminism

By Savanah Mandeville

We’ve all heard about heard about the “waves of feminism” and perhaps some of us have even encountered the phrase, “post feminism.”

What do these mean?

I’ve read some articles that argue that we’re in the “third wave” of feminism and entering the fourth and other articles that argue we’re already entering the fifth. I’m not going to lie, it can be really confusing even for the most strident feminists among us.

I decided to do some research and see what I could learn about each of the waves and explain them in basic terms. I think it’s a good idea to have a grasp on what they represent for a few reasons:

  • Ammo when arguing with anti-feminists. Almost all Americans are supporters of the first and second waves (maybe not Prez Bannon and his alt-right cronies). However, it’s the modern day third- and fourth-wavers who are not popular among many people. We must be prepared to explain what the Third Wave is and why it’s important.
  • To make sure you’re up to speed with what modern feminism is all about. It’s always important to keep learning and expanding your knowledge.
  • It’s never not important to learn about history. Learning about the history of feminism will only help you appreciate the past and how far women have come.


(Before I start, I’d like to point out that similar movements were happening around the world, but I’m going to focus on the waves as they occurred in the United States. There are feminist scholars such as Shira Tarrant who oppose the “wave” classification because it more distinctly describes the history of Feminism through an American lens.)


The word “wave” is used to categorize feminism because it illustrates the forward motion – and then resistance or loss of motion – of the movement. As each wave has pushed forward toward progress and change, it has been met some standstill and even backlash. Think of how a wave rolls in toward the sand then back out, so it’s kind of like “two steps forward, one step backward.”


First Wave of Feminism

1830s – early 1900s



The Basics:

There were small sprinklings of seeds planted that women might just be able to handle having rights in the 1700s and before, but it really was the 19th century when the movement began taking hold. In the 1840s and 1850s, reform movements that came together with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 was when things really took off. The movement was led primarily by white women who supported restrictions based on race and property ownership. The First Wave mainly involved legal issues and, ultimately, women’s right to vote (suffrage).



Who’s who:

Lucretia Coffin Mott – an American Quaker, abolitionist, women’s rights activist and social reformer. She helped write the Declaration of Sentiments during the Seneca Falls convention.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton – Suffragist, social activist, abolitionist, and leading figure of the early women’s rights movement. Her Declaration of Sentiments, presented at the Seneca Falls Convention, is often credited with initiating the first organized women’s rights movements in the United States. She was president of the National Woman Suffrage Association from 1892 – 1900.

Lucy Stone – Orator, abolitionist, suffragist, and a vocal advocate and organizer promoting rights for women. In 1847, Stone became the first women from Massachusetts to earn a college degree. She spoke out for women’s rights and against slavery at a time when women were discouraged and prevented from public speaking.

Susan B. Anthony – A social reformer and women’s rights activist who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement. She traveled, lectured, and canvassed across the nation for the vote. She also campaigned for the abolition of slavery, the right for women to own their own property and retain their earnings, and she advocated for women’s labor organizations. In 1900, Anthony persuaded the University of Rochester to admit women.

Ida B. Wells – An African American journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, and an early leader of the Civil Rights Movement. She was one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909. She was active in women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement, establishing several notable women’s organizations.

Accomplishments of the First Wave:

Accomplishments of the movement included legal rights such as those to own and control property, get a divorce, create a will, control the wages they earned and, most importantly, suffrage. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was signed into law, granting all  women the right to vote in all 50 states.

Some scholars argue that the First Wave of Feminism extends to the 1940s, beginning with the advent of the “The New Woman” (aka Gibson Girl) feminist ideal. The term was coined by writer Sarah Grand in her article “The New Aspect of the Woman Question” published in the North American Review in March 1894.

Gibson Girl.jpg
A Gibson Girl riding a bicycle (scandalous!)

The New Woman ideal eventually gave rise to the Flappers of the 1920s who are characterized as young women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, wore makeup, listened to jazz, lived alone or with other young women in the cities, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered proper behavior.




Another leap forward came in during World War II with Rosie the Riveter, a symbol of feminism and women’s economic power. Rosie the Riveter represents the American women who worked in factories and shipyards during WWII, many of whom produced munitions and war supplies. These women sometimes took entire new jobs replacing the male workers who were in the military.




Thank you, First Wavers!


Second Wave of Feminism

Early 1960s – early 1980s




The Basics:

The Second Wave was born as a result of women’s unrest in the renewed domesticity of women after WWII: the late 1940s post-war boom, which was an era characterized by economic growth, a baby boom, and a family shift to the suburbs. Think “Leave It to Beaver.”

The Second Wave of Feminism took the issues of the First Wave and broadened the debate to a wide range of issues including sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities. The movement also drew attention to domestic violence and marital rape; established rape crisis and battered women’s shelters; and ushered changes in custody and divorce law. Its major effort was the attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the United States Constitution. The ERA was defeated by anti-feminists led by Phyllis Schlafly.



Who’s Who:

Betty Frieden – her 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique” is often credited for sparking the second wave of feminism. Frieden helped to establish the National Women’s Political Caucus as well as organized the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970, which popularized the feminist movement throughout America. In 1966, Frieden was instrumental in launching the National Organization for Women (NOW), which went on to lobby Congress for pro-equality laws and assist women seeking legal aid as they battled workplace discrimination in the courts.

Gloria Steinem – Possibly one of the most recognized faces of feminism, Steinem led the women’s liberation movements as co-founder of the feminist themed magazine, “Ms.”. She was the leader of several feminist activist groups including Women’s Action Alliance, National Women’s Political Caucus, Women’s Media Center, and more. Her efforts led to her induction in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. In 2013, she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Casey Hayden and Mary King – The pair published “Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo” detailing women’s inequality within the civil rights movement, namely the organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It raised questions of gender disparities coming out of their activist experiences and sought “real efforts at dialogue within the movement.”

Robin Morgan – an American poet, author, political theorist and activist, journalist, and lecturer. Since the early 1960s, she has been a key feminist member of the American Women’s Movement and leader in the international feminist movement. Her 1970 anthology, “Sisterhood is Powerful” has been widely credited with helping to start the contemporary feminist movement in the United States.

bell hooks – Arguably most famous for her 1981 book, “Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism.” The focus of hook’s writing has been the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and what she describes as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination.


Accomplishments of the Second Wave:

The major successes of the Second Wave of Feminism include, but are not limited to: rape crisis centers, women’s shelters and health clinics, equal access to education, increased participation in politics and the workplace, access to abortion and birth control, resources to aid domestic violence and rape victims, and the legal protection of women’s rights.




Thank you, Second Wavers!


Third Wave of Feminism

Early 1990s – Present


 The Basics:

Third Wave feminists seek to broaden the goals of the Second Wave by focusing on ideas like queer theory and abolishing gender role expectations and stereotypes. The focus has become more about embracing differences, personal narratives, and individualistic identity and less on political changes and a feminist agenda (with notable exceptions such as rape culture, equal pay, and reproductive rights).

Furthermore, the Third Wave rose partially as a response to the Second Wave’s failure to expand feminism to include women with a diverse set of identities including race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and cultural background. The related concept of intersectionality was introduced in 1989 and has been embraced by the Third Wave. 

Who’s Who:

Rebecca Walker – Coined the phrase, “Third Wave” to highlight the focus on queer and non-white women. In 1992, she published an article entitled, “Becoming the Third Wave” in response to the Anita Hill case in which Hill accused Clarence Thomas, a man nominated to the United States Supreme Court, of sexual harassment. Thomas denied the accusations and ultimately was elected to the Supreme Court. Walker expressed her outrage in the article and famously stated: “I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the third wave.”

Jennifer Baumbardner and Amy Richards – In 2000, the pair published their co-authored book “Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future.” Speaking directly to young Third Wave feminists, they sought to inspire readers to embrace the liberation of today while remembering the work of previous feminist generations, writing, “The presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice we have it – it’s simply in the water.” They argue that today’s women want to continue the fight for equal rights but not to the detriment of their sexuality. They want to be both subject and object, when it comes to their sexual roles, their political power, and their place in American culture.

Cherrie Morago and Gloria E. Anzaldua – Famous for writing books such as “This Bridge Called My Back” and “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies” that critiqued second-wave feminism for its focus primarily on the problems and political positions of white women.

Elizabeth Wurtzel – Writer and journalist known for her 1998 memoir “Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women” which helped spur the movement to reclaim derogatory terms for women – a hallmark of Third Wave Feminism.

Accomplishments of the Third Wave

Prominent issues addressed by Third Wavers include gender violence, reproductive rights, reclaiming derogatory terms, rape, intersectionality, workplace issues, motherhood support, “girly feminism,” sexual empowerment, “raunch culture,” and freedom of dress. 

Given the current political climate, it’s all too easy to feel like the fight of the Third Wave Feminist is an uphill one and the accomplishments of this group are shrinking. But there are several examples in pop culture of ways the Third Wave has been able to work toward accomplishing goals pertaining to the above issues including anti-slut shaming and anti-rape initiatives like the Amber Rose SlutWalk, celebrities like Zooey Deschanel challenging that women can embrace femininity and still be feminist, numerous body positive pages on Instagram, the Riot Grrrl movement of the early ‘90s, real life sexual issues on “Girls,” and real individuality and a positive spin on raunch culture on “Broad City,” and a major shift in conversation involving intersectional ideas. Since the election of Donald Trump, we have seen the Women’s March on Washington and donations to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU skyrocket. It may be too soon to say what the accomplishments of the Third Wave of Feminism are but we are on our way.







Arguments of a Fourth Wave

2008 – Present


Some feminist writers argue that we are still living in the Third Wave, some say we are immersed in a Fourth Wave, and others say we are, at this point, dipping a toe in the Fourth Wave.

Jennifer Baumgardner identifies fourth-wave feminism as starting in 2008 and continuing into the present day. Most arguments that we live in an age of Fourth Wave feminism center around technology, namely social media in which discussions involving previously taboo topics are more widespread and accessible given the author is safely hidden behind a computer screen. These include abortion support lines, plus size fashion support and body positivity, transgender support, male feminism, and sex work acceptance among many others.

Kira Cochrane, author of the 2013 novel, “All the Rebel Women: The Rise of the Fourth Wave of Feminism” views the movement as one that exists online. Feminist author and icon Jessica Valenti expressed a similar sentiment in a 2009 interview with the “New York Times” in which she stated that she didn’t much identify with the Third Wave since some Third Wavers “are 20 years older than me.” She suggested that maybe the fourth wave was online.

This the burgeoning feminism that can be found in the form of Facebook posts, private online groups, Twitter hashtags, meme pages, online petitions, blogs, YouTube videos, and others.




What does Post-Feminism mean? 

It’s likely you’ve heard the phrase “post-feminism.” It sounds very official and like a term a well educated lady would throw around a dinner party. But it’s not. If you break it down, the phrase means, “after feminism.” Clearly, we are not living in a period “after feminism.”

The term was first coined to relate to the period after the feminist movement of the 1970s in which the more equal treatment of women was viewed as success of the movement.

But “more” equal treatment cannot be enough. We won’t live in a post-feminist society until there is totally equal treatment.

This is what a post feminist looks like. Someone who reaps the benefits of the First and Second Wave and  thus believes the work of the feminism is done.


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